Gov. Mark Gordon’s anguish was unmistakable when he and a host of rodeo officials recently announced the cancellation of several marquee Wyoming summer events due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
While most rodeo communities will experience significant economic losses this summer, none will be harder hit than Cheyenne, host of Frontier Days. The legendary “Daddy of ‘em All,” held annually since 1897, brings thousands of visitors and millions of dollars to the capital city.
To not have a 124th event during the last week of July is heartbreaking for many, especially the 2,500 volunteers who band together to make it happen.
The news brought back a flood of memories for me. They remind me of the good, the bad and the extremely muddy.
I’m a New York native but I grew up in Cheyenne, and the rodeo, night shows, carnival, Indian village, downtown parades and free pancake breakfasts were an integral part of my life for more than three decades. After 20 years of living in Casper, I’ve looked forward to Cheyenne Frontier Days since returning to my hometown in December.
Today CFD draws the nation’s top country acts. In my youth the night show’s offerings were quaint. I remember when my parents took me to see Roy Rogers and Dale Evans sing and do rope tricks, with comic relief from “Gunsmoke” stars Doc and Festus.
It wasn’t a concert most adolescents would admit to enjoying, but I did. I’m grateful now that I was able to see those Western legends on stage.
When I was 20, I became a reporter for the Wyoming State Tribune, a position that thrust me right into the middle of all the action at Frontier Days. Covering the event gave me access few could dream of — photographing the rodeo from inside the arena, interviewing cowboys and night-show entertainers and bringing slices of behind-the-scenes life to readers.
Every year I could count on being assigned two events: Frontier Days and the Legislative session. They both came with a dress code. During the session reporters could sit at the press table on the floor of the House and Senate, but men had to wear ties and either a sport coat or suit. The rodeo required a cowboy hat, long-sleeved shirt, jeans and boots.
Guess which one I liked better? I particularly enjoyed strolling back into the newsroom in my dusty cowboy duds, sitting at my typewriter (yes, that’s what we old-timers used then) and writing my stories while the suit-and-tie clad editors toiled to put out the daily edition. This was a job? And I got paid to do it?!
The concerts were the best, especially since I was a country music fan. It was unbelievable to watch Kenny Rogers, wearing a yellow slicker while getting absolutely drenched onstage, sing his heart out as fans fled their seats to escape the downpour. The vast majority continued watching from the back of the grandstands.
The press conferences featured an amazing array of stars. Johnny Cash, Charlie Daniels, Lynn Anderson, Barbara Mandrell and Conway Twitty were among the most memorable, mostly because they were down-home people who would stay as long as anyone had a question.
And two Frontier Days showcased my uncanny knack of being in the presence of greatness and not having a clue.
Interviewing rodeo athletes after their rides required asking a volunteer to request that they leave their “pen” near the chutes and walk out behind the grandstand. Typically, though, we just stood by the fence until the cowboy came within earshot and shouted to get their attention.
One day a reporter I’d never seen before made sure she got to each contestant first, and always asked the lamest question I had ever heard: “What was the name of the horse (or bull) you rode?” Most of the athletes didn’t know, and it was exasperating to watch.
Her name was Molly Ivins, a Texan then reporting for the New York Times, looking for some Western flavor to please her metropolitan editors. She may have been a fish out of water that day, but Ivins went on to become one of the most popular political columnists in the country. And I barely spoke a word to her.
Once my stories and photos were filed after a long day at the rodeo, I usually joined other reporters at the Hitching Post, where most of the Frontier Days crowd wound up. As journalists often do, we drank heavily and stayed late. The house band was great, but it annoyingly always called on a certain young cowboy to join it onstage at the end of each show.
This cowboy may have been a rodeo star, but he was unquestionably an unpolished singer. “Oh no,” I always complained. “Not Chris LeDoux again!”
Before LeDoux’s legion of fans tars and feathers me, I hasten to point out that many years later, after he became a national star, I interviewed LeDoux at a bar about an upcoming benefit he was headlining in Wyoming. Over a few beers, the singer was friendly and surprisingly humble as he talked about his rodeo and music careers. I learned he was an accomplished sculptor, a talent I didn’t even know he possessed.
I brought up those early appearances at The Hitch, without sharing my embarrassingly harsh critique. LeDoux laughed and admitted his singing was pretty raw in those days. I instantly became a loyal fan.
I wish these celebrities were still with us. Cancer claimed them both, LeDoux in 2005 and Ivins two years later.
I had countless good times at Frontier Days over the years. But oddly, the first thing that flashed in my mind when I heard about this year’s cancellation was my brief moment in the rodeo’s spotlight. It lasted about 10 seconds.
It always rains at Frontier Days in the afternoon, and the night before one rodeo it was a deluge. I knew my cowboy boots would be ruined in the arena, so I borrowed some knee-high rubber boots from my father.
I usually stayed close to the fence for safety’s sake, but sometimes you just need a better angle to catch the bucking action. Another photographer and I foolishly ventured too far from the rails during the bareback competition.
He made it back to the fence. Stuck in the muck, I didn’t.
After bucking off its rider, the horse circled back and headed directly toward me. One of the outriders, who were always present to protect contestants, charged in between and hit me from behind, and I flew forward smack into the mud. When I got back on my feet, I was clutching my camera in one hand; it escaped unharmed. I was thrilled about that.
Still, there was much laughter in the stands as I made my way to the nearest gate, covered shoulders-to-toes in mud. It was humiliating, but I admit that if I was a spectator, it would have found it a pretty funny sight. I’m grateful for the outrider who saved me from taking a hoof to the head. I’m goofy enough already.
I know that like me, everyone who has ever been to Frontier Days, either as a spectator, competitor or volunteer, has a special memory of their own. I’d love to see some of my readers share theirs in the comments below.
Though unfortunate, the cancellation of the state’s big rodeos was the right thing to do. During a pandemic, bringing thousands of people together would be a public health disaster.
I’m confident that Cheyenne will weather this year without Frontier Days, and the city’s most notable event will come back better than ever. The short absence will make its return a time to truly celebrate.